I can sometimes still remember, even all these years later, what autumn smells like.
I’m not talking, mind you, about the artificial fragrances manufactured and sold to us by Starbucks and Yankee Candle. No, I mean that sweet decay of wet leaves clumped into a strangled quilt in the gutter, carried along by a chilly gust from the Hudson River that would sweep across my Bronx neighborhood, rattling single-paned windows of prewar houses and apartment buildings and hurrying us home before the overcast skies ruptured. That was my favorite time to be out—when the wind was blowing but not raging, the thunderheads gathering though not yet sobbing. Such moments were when you could enjoy the stormy sense of danger autumn provoked precisely because you knew, with unshakable certainty, you could beat it home. I would quite literally venture into the woods, despite Mother Nature’s ominous admonitions, because it felt so good, after thirty of forty minutes of taking in the scented air and golden hues, to finally come in from the cold. For as far back as my memory extends, I have loved the fall season.
But I barely recollect what the cold feels like any more than I do the perfume of dead leaves. Real cold, that is—not the regulated airstream that pumps out of the A/C all day and night and lets me pretend, in concert with the aroma of Pumpkin Spice Latte, I’m someplace else.
This is my sixteenth autumn, such as it is, in seasonless Southern California, and now more than ever I miss the changing weather and weeping skies this time of year used to bring; I miss the drives we’d to take up to Sleepy Hollow (the actual one) and Bear Mountain, with its panoply of colored foliage, and riding the Bx9 bus past the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage on the Grand Concourse at East Kingsbridge Road. I’ve always missed those things—since the day I moved to L.A. It’s just become more pronounced in recent years. When I was young and immortal, I was entirely reassured by the infinite number of autumns ahead of me, confident I would get back to them… someday. But I turned forty earlier this year, a rite of passage which inspires no small degree of existential introspection, and now I wonder how many more I’ll miss out on here in the Land of Sunshine and Strip Malls, with its palm trees that remain as reliably green throughout the year as the weather stays hot and dry. These days, my favorite holiday, Halloween, mostly just reminds me of the particular autumnal delights even Hollywood, for all its world-building artifice (those signature palm trees aren’t indigenous), can’t credibly reproduce.
A photo I took on December 22, 2013 of the Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow, built 1697
Someone asked me, quite recently, why I love the spooky season so much, and I found myself, as I answered, really thinking through the issue for the first time in my life. Why do I love Halloween? Why do l love monster movies? Why do I love these things that, ostensibly, inspire such fear and dread—that represent death instead of life, dark instead of light, cold instead of warmth?